This is in no way a comprehensive list, because who has the time for that? Nevertheless, here are my favorites of 2018.
It’s 2019, which means it’s time to squash 2018 into listicles. I wasn’t quite able to listen to every album dropped last year, leaving me in a position of explicit non-authority on the best things of 2018. Taking that into consideration, the best I can do is share some of my favorite stuff from last year without trying to create any sort of gradation of quality; I just think all these releases are neat.
Parquet Courts — “Wide Awake!”
Dance-punk, classic rock, indie pop and folk are all represented on this release. Through this diversity of sound and genre, Parquet Courts stays sharp as a knife lyrically, and the group usually keeps at least one foot in rock. Like the title “Wide Awake!” would imply, most tracks are wrapped around social commentary, but it never vears into being overwrought or preachy, so don’t worry about it (because I know some people will worry about it). Also, I really like the vocals off this album; they’re punk-sounding, rough and low and usually in the front of the mix, but they add a certain grounding to the album that I think works really nicely, especially in the slower tracks like “Before the Water Gets Too High.”
Highlights: “Before the Water Gets Too High,” “Total Football” and “Almost Had to Start a Fight”
MGMT — “Little Dark Age”
I know MGMT are mostly known for their debut album “Oracular Spectacular,” the track “Electric Feel” in particular, but I think their 2018 album is some of their best work, if not their best release period. The genre is synth pop proper, but all the tracks sound incredibly current. “TSLAMP” laments all the time Andrew VanWyngarden, one of the group’s two frontmen, spends looking at his phone, and “She Works Out Too Much” is a critique of dating-app culture disguised in the aesthetics of an ‘80s workout video. If this sounds like a lot, it’s because it is, but MGMT has the streamlined synth instrumentation to balance all these ideas out. The result is a super slick, super fun album. Super.
Highlights: “Little Dark Age,” “Me and Michael” and “She Works Out Too Much”
Earl Sweatshirt — “Some Rap Songs”
Chopped, screwed and textured, “Some Rap Songs” relies heavily on sampling, but that’s in no way to its detriment. The grit of the album, the way it sounds like a warbled vinyl, and the use of music and speech sampling gives the album an innate sense of place and of inspiration. It’s like Earl Sweatshirt is laying out his frayed family photos on this release, which makes sense, considering that the rapper’s father, a poet from South Africa, passed away in early 2018. Like on his 2015 release, “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside,” the highlight of the album is Earl’s vulnerable and upfront verses discussing his depression and, unique to this release, his family history. It’s a lowkey, borderline-calming album to listen to, but the themes of loss and listlessness are constant. My one critique of the album is that it’s only 24 minutes long.
Highlights: “Shattered Dreams,” “Ontheway!”and “Nowhere2go”
Robyn — “Honey”
You know when people used to say “I’m crying in the club” to express any and all emotion? This is what you would put on if your goal were to actually cry in the club. Part confrontation of a dear friend’s death, part house music, part reestablishing of Robyn’s public persona and one whole excellent pop album, Robyn’s “Honey” is light, vulnerable and fiercely intelligent. These tracks take a bit of time to really get in your head, but once they do, they’ll stay there on loop for months.
Highlights: “Between The Lines,” “Because It’s In The Music” and “Human Being”
IDLES — “Joy as an Act of Resistance.”
Punk is in a weird place right now. There isn’t a lot of non-pop punk getting big, and what is released has to inevitably place itself somewhere in the current political spectrum, as is the tradition and (at least to me) ultimate point of punk music. The difficulty with political music in 2018 is its sheer saturation: no one’s happy, regardless of affiliation, and we as consumers all have to hear about it all the time, constantly. And while I’m cognizant and appreciative of the importance of art as a vehicle for advocacy, it has to be done well. This is a punk album that I think does it well (with the major exception of a horrible “Harry Potter” reference toward its tail end, which I understand the purpose of, but boy, do I still hate listening to a British man yell, “Ten points for Gryffindor”). IDLES has quick lyrics and even quicker, louder riffs, keeping its audience engaged for the duration of this excellent punk album.
Highlights: “Love Song,” “Samaritans” and “Colossus”
Open Mike Eagle — “What Happens When I Try to Relax”
This is it, the one EP on the list. These six tracks are such earworms that when OME dropped the collection, it was basically all I listened to for a solid two weeks. So it seemed disingenuous to talk about music I loved in 2018 and not include “What Happens When I Try to Relax,” the art-rapper’s first release since going independent. The EP is a meditation on creating art, fatherhood and the general anxieties of the modern age… you know, light stuff. Anyway, the EP has an incredible sense of rhythm and flow, and OME’s beats are as unique as ever, though a bit airier than some of what you’d hear on his last studio album.
Highlights: “Single Ghosts,” “Relatable (Peak OME)” and “Southside Eagle”
Death Grips — “Year of the Snitch”
This is a weird one. I’m not even sure that I like the group, but this was an album I kept coming back to time and time again. For the uninitiated, Death Grips is an experimental noise rap group whose 2011 debut had huge critical success. The group is most interested in intensity of both production and of vocal delivery, it seems. The sheer amount of energy the album exudes is really fun, if that’s the thing you’re into. I guess if you like being yelled at, noise music and Death Grips, then you’ll like this Death Grips album.
Highlights: “Death Grips is Online,” “Streaky” and “Hahaha”
Ezra Furman — “Transangelic Exodus”
This is my most sentimental inclusion. Ezra Furman is one of those artists I just feel like I know, you know? I haven’t been listening to his stuff for the longest time, but there’s this great sense of vulnerability in his work that really draws me in. This release is a concept album about falling in love with an angel while on a transnational roadtrip to escape the cops, and it’s equally as whimsical and melancholy as it sounds like it would be. On multiple tracks, Furman alludes to his Jewishness and non-binaryness and how those identities has shaped his life experiences. (Don’t worry, he uses he/him pronouns. I checked.) The middle section of the album that’s a little bit darker tonally and more musically experimental has the strongest set of tracks, in my opinion.
Highlights: “Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill,” “Psalm 151” and “Come Here Get Away From Me”
cupcakKe — “Ephorize”
CupcakKe is stupid fun to listen to, which was probably why I found myself coming back to this album so often after my (admittedly pretty recent) first listen. Pitchfork calls it “porny,” which is just about as funny as it is true, but cupcakKe has more than just sex-centric bars on this collection. She tackles self-image and LGBTQ issues throughout the album, most notably on the track “Crayons.” The beats throughout are well-produced and give as much energy as cupcakKe herself, and I’m hard pressed to think of a tighter album released this year.
Highlights: “Post Pic,” “Exit” and “Duck Duck Goose”
SOPHIE — “OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES”
This album is all I’ve talked about for the last six months, and I should probably apologize to my roommates for never, ever shutting up about SOPHIE. The Scottish hyperkinetic experimental pop DJ dropped this album in June, and I said it would be my album of the year maybe three weeks later. It’s as metallic-sounding on tracks like “Ponyboy” as it is lush and vulnerable on tracks like “It’s Okay to Cry.” I’ve compared it to Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” in its huge sense of scale and beauty, and I’m going to keep doing that until I’m proven wrong (which won’t happen). If you like experimental music, you owe it yourself to give this album a listen.
Highlights: “Ponyboy,” “Is It Cold In The Water?” and “Whole New World”